Public Schools and Christmas Music: Yes, We Can! Yes, We Should!

The purging of Christmas from the public square, workplace, and shopping center has produced a weird paralysis among those special gatekeepers of culture: public school music teachers. Like deer caught in headlights, some seem unsure which way to proceed. But proceed they must and so they tread cautiously -- planning “winter programs” based less on musical merit than on sticking close to safety.

Believe me, I’ve seen my share. With five kids currently in public schools and seven graduates, I figure I’ve sat through at least 50 concerts -- and it would have been more if not for some intervening homeschooling years.

In fact it was my first “winter program” after eight years of homeschool that sounded an early alarm: songs of Santa, chimneys, and reindeer, plus three Chanukah and one Kwanzaa -- the latter though the school boasted only one Jewish family (non-practicing) and not a single African-American. Ninety musical minutes with nary a note about Jesus.

Of course, I know Christianity will survive whether censored out of public schools or not, but that’s not the point. The obvious question -- like the headlight glare -- is this: why bend over backwards to acknowledge religious minorities while singling out Christianity for exclusion?

That first year, when I asked the principal why no Christmas carols had been included, she said, “Well, there were -- 'Jingle Bells,' 'Jolly Old Saint Nicholas' ...”

“But those aren’t Christmas carols,” I said. “What about the birth of Jesus?”

Deer in headlights.

“You know, I understand we’re trying for multiculturalism,” I suggested gently. “Aren’t we part of the mix?”

While I understand the skittishness behind excluding references to what some of us still call “the reason for the season,” I also know that there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In 1995, President Clinton -- concerned that some educators and community members had incorrectly assumed that schools must be religion-free zones -- asked U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley to issue guidelines. The result is a remarkably concise, clear, and sensible document titled "Religious Expression in Public Schools: A Statement of Principles."